At the intersection of greater environmental awareness, stricter public health measures and the return of the tourism industry lies an enduring threat: plastic pollution.
Research shows that increased production and use of personal protective equipment in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly contributed to plastic pollution on beaches and elsewhere.
But it is not just the COVID-19 pandemic that is leading to an increase in plastic pollution. A new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, shows that plastic pollution has been increasing year on year, even before the pandemic.
There is currently between 75–199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean, and in 2016 some 9–14 tons of waste entered the aquatic ecosystem. But by 2040, it is estimated that this will have almost tripled to 23–37 million tons per year. Plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of all marine waste.
Changes to the traveller, government and institutional approaches are necessary to address the plastic crisis and protect human and environmental health.
Experts say that reducing single-use plastic product consumption and adhering to public health and sanitary measures to protect from COVID-19 and other diseases is not mutually exclusive.
“During the pandemic, we have seen a misconception on reusable products, such as steel water bottles being less safe than single-use plastic water bottles,” says Helena Rey de Assis, UNEP Programme Manager. “This wrong perception has increased the use of single-use plastic products by consumers and affected government and tourism operators’ regulations. Single-use plastic items and packaging are not sanitization measures in themselves. The virus can survive on these, and they can be contaminated during their transport or handling.”
Rey de Assis says travellers on holiday can take steps to reduce the amount of waste they generate while saving costs. Bringing one’s own bags, water bottles and toiletries can decrease the burden on local waste and recycling infrastructure. It would also gradually reduce local economies’ dependency on single-use plastic products.
UNEP’s Clean Seas platform – the largest global coalition devoted to ending marine plastic pollution – has produced an interactive project entitled “What’s in your bathroom?” highlighting the prevalence of plastic in common personal care products. As many of these products are available in tourist accommodations, shifting to viable alternatives can help reduce the threat of plastic.
The impetus on reducing plastic pollution does not lie solely with individuals. Strong legislation has been shown to be an effective means to ban, reduce or phase out single-use plastic.
Bans can prompt the local tourism sector to innovate, provide visitors with environmentally friendly options, and educate consumers. In Kenya, the ban on single-use plastics has addressed its “plastic pollution catastrophe,” according to Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.
“The ban has improved the state of Kenyan beaches and national parks with reduced visible plastic pollution,” says Balala. “Efforts should be global because even if we clean our country, we will always have plastics that are thrown from ships in high seas swept to our beaches. Therefore, I would like to make a worldwide appeal for people to reduce the use of single-use plastics, and eventually, abolish it altogether.”
Tourism operators, businesses and institutions can also take the initiative to voluntarily support the shift away from the industry’s reliance on plastic. Leading the way in voluntarily reducing plastic use can reap commercial benefits. Less litter, for example, can lead to more picturesque views and more visitors.
The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI), co-led by UNEP, requires national and local governments, private companies and supporting organizations in the tourism sector to commit to reducing plastic pollution and shift towards circularity by 2025.
The online travel platform Booking.com is one of over 100 signatories to the GTPI committed to creating a circular economy of plastics. This commitment includes steps to eliminate single-use plastics while maintaining health protocols.
“While we agree that health and safety is of the utmost importance, we also saw that many of our partners were unaware of alternative, plastic-free ways to offer high levels of cleanliness and hygiene at their properties,” said Thomas Loughlin, Sustainable Supply Lead at Booking.com. “This is why we published our own set of guidelines, created in partnership with the GTPI. We wanted to make sure our partners had access to a broader range of credible, practical information, so they could make more informed decisions about how to tackle these challenges in a sustainable way.”
UNEP has partnered with Flipflopi, a circular economy movement based in East Africa, and Routes Adventure to release a short film entitled “Pieces of us,” set in the tourist destination of Lamu, Kenya. The film highlights the role that visitors have played in shifting the local economy towards a reliance on tourist-oriented products.
Following pandemic-enforced closures, travellers, governments, and institutions have a unique opportunity to reframe the tourism industry with sustainability at its heart. Now is the time to fight back against plastic pollution and ensure a cleaner, more resilient and more economically viable future.
Time to rethink tourism, an economic lifeline for millions
Hopes that the tourism industry would rebound from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been dented by the wildfire spread of the Omicron variant. In an exclusive interview with UN News, Zoritsa Urosevic, Executive Director of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), called for new ideas to restart the sector.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is one of the 15 specialized agencies of the United Nations, which aims to promote tourism around the world, and make it the driving force of economic growth and sustainable development.
Speaking to Bessie Du of UN News at the end of 2021, shortly after the agency’s general assembly, Ms. Urosevic began by outlining the devastating impact the COVID-19 epidemic continues to have on tourism, and the prospects for recovery.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Zoritsa Urosevic: Tourism has been the sector hit hardest by the crisis, as well as all the people and the livelihoods that depends on it. Basically, this has been a very tough two years, but we see that, in the future, we will have to fully rethink the sector, and that’s maybe an opportunity.
Developed countries were much better prepared to support the hit, mostly with financial packages to support the industry and small businesses, and to try to preserve people’s jobs. Developing countries have been really struggling to do that.
We created the tourism recovery package, a tool to rapidly assess what needs to be done in a particular country, and we have created the first ever code for the protection of tourists, because building confidence is really a very important element for people who decide to travel.
We are totally aligned with the World Health Organization (WHO) on the importance of engaging in safer travel protocols rather than stopping travel altogether, because we know how many livelihoods depend on tourism, not only directly, but also those working in the industries that depend on the sector, such as food production, services, and manufacturing.
At a time when populations are increasingly moving to urban areas, rural development through tourism is certainly going to be one of the major trends in the sector. We have launched an initiative called Best Tourism Villages, and we are going to have a global centre for rural development of tourism.
UN News: Would you say the hit on tourism is unprecedented?
Zoritsa Urosevic: This has been certainly the biggest crisis ever for the sector. Basically, it’s like we went back 30 years in 2020. Over the last three decades, tourism has been steadily growing by around four per cent every year, so now we have a situation where we have a lot of supply, a lot of businesses, and no tourists.
Countries which had the size and purchasing power for it, such as China, were able to switch to domestic tourism, but for small, developing countries like Fiji, which have been the hardest hit by the crisis, and where tourism represents between 40 and 70 per cent of GDP, this isn’t possible.
We are calling for the harmonization of travel protocols, which have been very volatile because, even if countries reach an agreement, a change in the pandemic situation means that it can’t be applied.
The most successful countries have been the ones that were able to communicate very clearly, and spell out the protocols. Greece is a great example: they opened up in July 2020, but communicated well in advance, and many tourists who had been planning to go elsewhere went to Greece instead, because they were well informed.
UN News: How do you inform the everyday tourists on the progress made in internationally coordinating travel protocols?
Zoritsa Urosevic: We have really scaled up our presence on social media, and have a hundred times more followers than we used to have. We are trying our best, but it’s never enough, so we are very welcoming to new ideas and new opportunities.
UN News: What do you say to the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism?
Zoritsa Urosevic: First, I would say that this sector is very resilient: we all dream，and we all want to travel. For now, we need to improve education and training, but I think the future is bright. Tourists will come back, and they will be more respectful than before: there will be a new path for happiness in tourism and cultural exchange.
New ADB Facility to Help Southeast Asia Revive Tourism
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has set up a $1.7 million technical assistance facility to accelerate Southeast Asia’s tourism recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, boost inclusive, sustainable development in the sector, and help local tourism entrepreneurs, especially women and youth, adopt digital platforms to grow their businesses.
The Southeast Asia Sustainable Tourism Facility will help countries identify and prepare environmentally sustainable tourism projects and catalyze private financing to support them. It will help businesses better operate tourism facilities and deliver digital tourism services. The facility will also help policy makers design visa, online short-term rental, and other policies to attract longer-staying, higher-spending visitors and remote workers, allow more small entrepreneurs to legitimately operate accommodation services, and boost tourism tax revenues.
“This new facility aims to help ADB’s developing member countries in Southeast Asia revive tourism, which has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said ADB Principal Tourism Industry Specialist for Southeast Asia Steven Schipani. “Projects supported by the facility will develop green and resilient urban and transport infrastructure in secondary cities to improve the tourism sector’s competitiveness, help create jobs, protect the environment, and accelerate inclusive digital transformations.”
In 2019, travel and tourism accounted for 12.1% of Southeast Asia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employed 42 million workers, mostly women working for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). But international visitor arrivals dropped 82% in 2020 from 2019, while domestic tourism remains constrained by travel restrictions and reduced economic activity. The sector’s contribution to regional GDP fell by 53% in 2020, pushing more people into poverty.
Even before COVID-19, Southeast Asia trailed global tourism competitiveness benchmarks for ground, port, and urban infrastructure, information and communication technology readiness, and environmental sustainability. Governments hope to address these challenges in tandem with efforts to revive tourism. The facility will support key tourism-related priorities set out by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and subregional tourism strategies in Southeast Asia.
The facility includes a $500,000 grant from ADB’s Technical Assistance Special Fund. In addition, ADB will administer a $225,000 grant contribution from the Project Readiness Improvement Trust Fund financed by the Nordic Development Fund, a $500,000 grant from the Republic of Korea e-Asia and Knowledge Partnership Fund, and a $500,000 grant from the Spanish Cooperation Fund for Technical Assistance.
COVID-19: WHO urges Europeans to be smart and safe this holiday season
The World Health Organization (WHO) is reminding Europeans to remain vigilant against COVID-19 spread as they round out the year with friends and family.
The COVID-19 threat remains high across the continent, which was already the epicentre of the pandemic even before the emergence of the new Omicron variant.
Use the tools
“My message to the people of Europe and central Asia is to exercise caution this holiday season. Use the many tools we have at our disposal. These stabilizers help us to manage the virus and keep people safe,” said Dr. Kluge.
He urged people to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
“Vaccines remain the best way to prevent severe disease and death, even with the arrival of the Omicron variant,” said Dr. Kluge. “If you are eligible for a third dose and it is available to you, take it.”
Families and friends meeting up should keep these gatherings small, he added,while recommending that people should take a lateral flow/antigen or PCR test beforehand to ensure they are not infectious.
“Follow other preventive measures, even if you are fully vaccinated,” Dr. Kluge advised. “Avoid crowded or confined places, wear a well-fitting mask, observe physical distancing of at least one metre, ventilate indoor spaces by opening windows and/or doors, and keep your hands clean.”
Finding the right balance
In separate advice to governments and health authorities, WHO Europe called for “a balanced and risk-based approach” to COVID-19 prevention measures this winter season.
As people socialize more indoors, or travel to visit loved ones, the opportunities for further virus transmission are significant.
WHO Europe said with the right mix of measures, countries can find a balance between keeping coronavirus transmission down and societies and economies open.
Government response should be centred around preventing severe COVID-19 disease and stabilizing transmission.
Measures include continuing to vaccinate, targeting those most at risk, and prioritizing eligible groups for booster shots. Governments should also strengthen public health actions such as testing, contact tracing and regulations for mass gatherings.
Regarding international travel, WHO Europe said while countries may apply appropriate measures to reduce virus transmission, particularly in response to new variants, blanket travel bans will not prevent their international spread.
Additionally, decisions on mass gatherings should “rely on a risk-based approach”, and WHO has produced a policy brief and risk assessment tool to support authorities in this regard.
New assessment tool
WHO Europe recently launched an online mechanism to help governments decide on the type and level of measures to implement in their territories.
The COVID-19 Public Health and Social Measures (PHSM) Calibration Tool brings together the crucial information required to make an assessment, and then provides a situational report with recommendations on appropriate measures.
The (PHSM) Calibration Tool will allow governments and local authorities to quickly adjust measures as needed, which in turn should help reduce virus transmission, among other benefits.
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